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‘Unreal’ Creator on the Series Finale, Tackling Sexual Assault and Making a Film About ISIS (EXCLUSIVE)

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the fourth and final season of “Unreal,” streaming on Hulu.

The cameras have not only turned off (OK, melted) for “Everlasting,” the reality show within the show on “Unreal,” but also for “Unreal” itself, which dropped all eight episodes of its fourth and final season on Hulu this morning (July 16).

“We’re so excited that people are getting it all at once because it’s always felt like that kind of show to me,” “Unreal” creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro tells Variety. “And when you get to the point where you feel like you absolutely can’t stand Rachel, you know there’s another turn coming, and it’s coming right away. Bingeing feels like the truth to me right now, and I’m really happy to [tell the story] this way.”

Always a manipulative character who will say and do whatever she has to to make the most salacious television, Rachel (Shiri Appleby) took things further than usual in the fourth and final season. Not only was she playing a suitress game of her own, bedding a number of the men who returned for the “All Stars” season of “Everlasting,” but she was also orchestrating a story that started out simply trying to get sexual assault victim Maya (Natasha Wilson) to confront her attacker but ended up with the near-rape of another contestant and a cover up that, at least for a short time, painted Maya as the violent one and landed her in jail.

“In the initial [story] break it came more from a place of character than topical news stuff,” Shapiro says of diving into sexual assault survivor trauma in the season. “To be totally honest, it was talking about, what is the thing that Rachel could do that could be the worst thing she could ever do? And so it felt like this betrayal of women — setting another woman up for such a fall — was a really complicated thing to pull off.”

What became most important for Shapiro when wrapping up the show was to make sure that both Rachel and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) got to “try things they hadn’t tried before” — so it “felt like everybody hit the side of the fishbowl before they gave up.”

Here, Shapiro talks with Variety about whether Rachel had a true moment of growth before the end of the series, what was most important in closing out her story with Quinn, and how working on “Unreal” launched her next project, a feature film about women fighting against ISIS.

Throughout the whole series, Rachel and Quinn both have done some ethically questionable things, but in the fourth season Rachel really takes it to another level. Did you feel you had to have them atone before the end of the series?

I don’t find atonement super interesting. What I was the most obsessed with for Rachel was — the line is kind of buried in the first episode, but I feel like it’s the most important part of the season to me, which is Quinn asking her, “You don’t have a trace of feminist guilt about this new life you’re living?” And her saying, “I got tired of hearing myself talk.” [It] was the most important part of the entire season for me [because] she was just tired of her own shtick, and she wanted to be a different person and she wanted the relief of living a different life. So I think the idea that she got highlights, bought a push-up bra, just decided to be a different person is more fascinating to me on a personal level. It’s more interesting to me to lean into her delusion than to have her apologize for it.

What were the challenges in writing a character who is making so many outward changes but can’t act too out of character because the changes aren’t happening within?

When you have a character who’s pretending to be somebody else, it’s a complicated challenge, in terms of writing them. I talked about Rachel this season in the room like she was a troll wearing a wig. She should feel like a person who hates herself, hates her body, hates her life, but she’s putting on everything to cover up how gross she actually feels. And so that first Tinder date was supposed to be her crawling out of her skin and trying really, really hard to pretend to be somebody else, and the line is, “Yeah I don’t date a lot,” but for us, we should know she hasn’t been on a real date ever. She f—s people in the back of the truck. … So how do you write someone who’s trying to be somebody else but keep them who they are? I think for us it was just about making her really uncomfortable in that new skin so we could see the old Rachel cracking through.

How did the process of writing Quinn’s new attitude differ?

I think that Quinn is at a place in her arc and also at an age in a person’s life where they are like, “What’s next?” She’s gotten to the top of her career in some ways, she’s accomplished a lot of the things she wanted to accomplish, and it felt really believable to me that a person like that would try something different. And the amazing thing with an actress of Constance’s ability is that we always trust that she’s going to find the truth in it. And it felt like she did that — she got inside who Quinn was but was able to adjust to the new attitude.

What were the discussions you had in the writers’ room about Rachel’s methods in trying to force Maya to confront her rapist?

There are so many concerns, right? Tonally, it’s really challenging. I think there were a lot of concerns about Maya stabbing him — I think just the fact that that’s a wild place for our show to go to but I also feel like if she didn’t do anything then what was the point, and then how do you make her not crazy? What Rachel was doing was so horrible, and there was a lot of conversation about can you even come back from that? There were concerns in every direction.

What pushed you past those concerns to go as dark as you did?

I think part of what we’re saying is that we wanted to commit to taking the character to the deepest, darkest place that we could take her … and I feel like what was really important to me was really asking the question, “After all of the terrible things that Rachel has done, what is left that would make her feel like she’s hit the bottom of the well?” I think that when we were talking about some of the stuff that I had been through when I was working on the show and other situations that people have found themselves in, it’s really when you betray your own — the essential ingredients and components of that on a character level absolutely felt like the place we needed to get to. In terms of how it happened, that was up for discussion, but from a character standpoint we had to get her to a point where it seems like she couldn’t come back from it.

Yet you brought her to a place, eventually, where she seemed to genuinely want to take ownership and responsibility of her actions.

She did.

But she didn’t end up doing so, and Tommy (Francois Arnaud) took the blame for the manipulated footage that made it look like Maya was crazy and Roger (Tom Brittney) was a victim. So how much true growth did she really have?

There was a moment where she could have intervened and said, “It wasn’t Tommy, it was me,” and we talked about that a lot — but I felt like that just felt a little too tidy for our show. It felt a little too saccharine and a little too sweet, putting a bow on it like, “She really has learned!” So while she did grow, she’s still just as f—ed up as she’s ever been, and I think that the relationship between Quinn and Rachel is still as codependent, but we still admire it and care about it, and that felt like our show.

Why was it important for you to end the series not only with Rachel and Quinn on the same side again but also literally burning down their toxic past by setting the “Everlasting” set on fire?

That was 100% what we were driving to all season — that moment of her talking about [motherhood] and making it very clear that she is Rachel’s parent. And when we were talking about it, the parents in the room were saying there is a thing where you wouldn’t let your kid go to jail. So even if they had done something really horrible, you probably would keep them out of jail, so I feel like that’s what we were getting to — when Quinn had the opportunity to take Rachel out of commission, she just couldn’t do it. … I also feel like they’re going to do better — like they’re going to do something better with their lives. That was really important to me from a series perspective, not to leave them in the mud. I actually believe they’re really strong, capable women and they can do something better with their brains. And I think a really important part of it, too, is Rachel saying she’s not going to marry some bozo, and Quinn’s not going to have a baby with Chet, and I feel like the most beautiful part was them accepting who they are and that it is within who they are that they can do something better.

In addition to bringing back show-within-the-show suitors and suitresses who had connections to Rachel and Quinn for the final season, you also introduced some new blood in Candy (Natalie Hall). What did you want her character to bring that you felt the show was missing?

The Candy character was one that I was excited about in terms of subjugating the narrative of strippers and showing the complexities of post-feminist women or third or fourth wave feminism. I thought it was really important to have a loud, clear voice with that point of view because that’s really what Rachel and Quinn are kind of bumping up against because they’re a little bit becoming dinosaurs — they’re a little bit behind the curve. Their show they’re making is antiquated, their feminism is a little messy. And Candy comes in, and she’s almost holds up to them the ideal that they should be holding up to themselves. And I also thought it was important to have someone who was as smart or smarter than they are.

There is talk in the show of a spinoff for Candy — have you had discussions about making one of the other shows within the show a reality?

Even from the day I pitched [“Unreal”] there were conversations like, “Oh there could be additional content.” I would say for me that that path doesn’t hold a ton of interest for me. If we were to try and launch a next [show] with it, it would have to be radically different, but I felt like it would also have to be an organic continuation of the wants and needs of those characters.

Similarly, did you ever toy with the idea of devoting an episode of “Unreal” solely to “Everlasting” to further showcase the juxtaposition between the worlds?

I think that came up over and over again and every time we talked about it, it kind of unraveled the DNA of the show. The relationship between the control room and the floor is kind of the beating heart of the show, and from a technical standpoint, even when we go full frame for the reality show, everything feels a little bit off. So it got talked about a lot, but we never actually wanted to go that way.

How did your experience directing episodes of “Unreal” influence your new Amazon film?

I think every day on set as a director influences your next, and I feel like one of the great parts of directing “Unreal” is taking something that started in my brain and actually being the person making it with my hands. That experience has been incredibly gratifying and just made me want a lot more. I started off as a writer-director, and obviously I had experience then as the writer on set as I was trying to translate a vision to a director, and I can’t even express the relief of just being able to be that person. It actually is so much easier — I find it so much easier and more effective and actually less work to just go ahead and communicate and make decisions. On “Unreal” there were a lot of night shoots, and technicality of the big cranes and big crowds is a lot more manageable to me now. And I also loved the challenge from the scene work perspective of directing ‘Unreal’ is that there are always sort of three conversations going on in each scene: There’s the conversation they’re having and the words they’re saying, and then there’s the layer just beneath that which is the conversation they think they’re having…and then the sub-layer underneath that, which is the most interesting layer to me, is the layer where they’re too scared to admit to themselves what they’re really doing. And so I feel like from a directorial standpoint, having to support actors in finding those three layers leads the way into my next project, which is about international terrorism and people living a lie and buying into radical ideology. It feels really apropos.

What made a film about ISIS the perfect next project after “Unreal”?

It’s just something that I care about a ton. It’s super inspiring and it makes all of the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And tonally, it’s also insanely challenging. … For me the part where there is a lot of crossover, and for me was my way into the story, is that it’s based on two women —  a Kurdish woman who’s been captured and enslaved with an American woman — and it’s actually really little sarcastic and poppy and Tarantino-y. It’s really heightened, actually. And the interesting thing for me about ISIS once I started researching it is it’s primarily Western people — so it’s like British rappers and stuff. The Twitter culture of ISIS became my obsession, so to me it feels like the natural next step from “Unreal” because it’s sort of taking the psychosis of American reality television and extending it to the global level — the violence of video games and post-capital boredom. It actually feels like the same thing but way bigger and scarier and more complicated.

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